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My iPod Addiction Meets My Book Addiction

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A week or so ago I published a news brief on the demise of The Washington Post 's Book World podcast. It was a podcast I had been listening to religiously almost from the day I got my first iPod. The books and literature section of the iTunes podcast directory was the first set of pages I visited, and what I found there was a veritable cornucopia of delight for any book lover with ear pods. This was before I even had a chance to get a look at the audio books pages. I began subscribing to everything that was there: The Guardian Books Podcast, Authors on Tour — Live, The Classic Tales Podcast , and on, and on.

Some of them I unceremoniously dumped after a few weeks. Book Lust With Nancy Pearl never quite delivered the titillation its title promised. KCRW's Bookworm, Michael Silverblatt, was much too impressed with his own voice that more often than not his questions seemed to go on longer than the poor authors' answers. Podcasts from Yale University were aimed at scholars with different priorities.

Some of them I kept around a little longer, the BBC's Book Reviews With Simon Mayo, for example — and this despite the facts that for some reason he regularly had his panel of reviewers take the time to describe in detail the book jackets under discussion but even more importantly that they hardly ever found anything to dislike in any of the books they were talking about. Some like Book World disappeared of their own accord. The CBC's Talking Books, a feisty irreverent review show, unfortunately called it quits after eleven years.

There were, thankfully, always replacements waiting on the bench to take their place. The serialized novel reading podcast Between the Covers, replaced when it seemed obvious we were getting abridgments, was succeeded by Magdalena Ball's Compulsive Reader by way of Australia, courtesy of Blog Talk Radio. The overly erudite Harvard Press: Author Off The Page gave way to the BBC's World Book Club.

Now as I take the time to search for a replacement for the late lamented Book World, I count nineteen separate podcasts devoted to books and literature. This includes readings of poetry, short stories and novels, author interviews, book club discussions, and reviewers. It doesn't include theatrical podcasts, although to omit Shakespeare from the category of literature seems something of blunder, to say the least. It doesn't include podcasts that regularly feature authors and literary reviews in their more eclectic formats — podcasts of shows like NPR's Fresh Air, despite the fact that often when a new book comes out, its author becomes ubiquitous. When Richard Price was on the road touting Lush Life, it was almost impossible to escape him. Recently, it's been Michael Chabon and Paul Rudnik making the rounds for their newly published essays. Repetition is one price of addiction.

As I look for podcast number twenty, I try to define some criteria for the many candidates still out there. I look to those podcasts that have stood the test of time for models. Number one: I want a host who loves books, knows something about them, but is willing to allow the author the spotlight. I want someone like Terry Gross, whose guests are always taking the time to tell her how wonderful her questions are. I want someone like Eleanor Wachtel, the hostess of Writers and Company, who seems to have read everything everyone of her weekly guests has written, yet never seems to pompously pontificate a la the Bookworm.

I want to hear what literate readers think about what they have read. The Slate book club discussions are always lively and informative whether they're talking about Tolstoy or Evelyn Waugh. The World Book Club opens up the discussion to ordinary readers, ordinary but perceptive, and allows them to ask questions of authors they admire. This is a scenario sure to appeal to any book lover.

Intelligent, dynamic readers, like those on PRI's Selected Shorts, with the capacity to bring life to the printed page, would be welcome. There is something exciting about hearing the poetry of Robert Burns in the native dialect that overwhelms the fact that the American ear might not always understand what is being said. There is something to be learned from hearing an author read her own work. One thinks of a writer like Dickens enthralling audiences with his readings of Bill Sykes' death and Scrooge's transformation. Podcasts that give us the opportunity to hear modern day Dickenses are something to be cherished.

Finally, I want a podcast that is adventurous, that is willing to take its listeners beyond the tried and true, the popular novel that everyone is reading — not that I don't want that, too. I want a show to make me aware of the writer I haven't heard about, the book that has gone under the radar, the new voice. I want to hear about the Dickens they'll be talking about in ten years.

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About Jack Goodstein

  • Oh, I do love this article, because you are right on target. I will miss the WaPo Book World podcast for sure.

    The situation you are describing with books podcasts is why we started our Books on the Nightstand podcast almost 18 months ago. I’m not sure it’s exactly what you are looking for — we don’t have authors as guests, for instance. But I do invite you to give it a try if you haven’t already. Our podcast is conversational in format, with myself and my cohost talking about books the way that friends would talk about them over a cup of coffee. We are both employed at a large publisher by day, and I think have a unique take on the book world because of it — though the podcast is an independent project and we talk about books from all publishers.

    I do hope you will check us out, but more importantly, I hope that others read this and are inspired to start their own books podcasts that fit the themes and formats that they are looking for. It’s time consuming, yes, but not difficult and it’s very rewarding.

  • I’ll look for you on iTunes.

  • Thank you for pointing me to some wonderful new podcasts. Like you, lit-related podcasts have kept me company since I received my first iPod as a gift years ago. In a busy time they are how I stay in touch with what’s happening in literature, and how I taste my first tidbits of stories worth reading.

    While not directly about the book, one of my favorite literary podcasts is produced by The Moth, a not-for-profit storytelling organization that offers free weekly podcasts of favorite stories recorded at the Moth’s live storytelling events across the country. I love listening to the voices of actors, musicians, editors, restaurateurs”people from all walks of life who stand up in front of an audience “without notes” and share tidbits of their very interesting lives.

    I also enjoy the 92nd Street Y’s podcast series because it features selections from their recently digitized archives. These readings and conversations, recorded live at the 92nd Street Y over decades of programming, feature the voices of”among others”Vladimir Nabokov reading “Pale Fire” to a Y audience in 1964, and Paul Auster talking with Michael Wood in 2002 about the work of writing. I’m sure there are many other archival gems to come.

    Thank you again for your excellent suggestions. Spending time listening to the BBC’s “World Book Club” and “Writers & Company” will be quite a pleasure on this rainy Saturday afternoon in Manhattan.